The question above is raised in a history of graffiti that I’ve started reading since arriving a few days ago (3, to be exact) in Portland, Oregon. This question gets at the heart of some of the public art issues that I’ve been thinking about:
The ultimate point seems to be: What kind of city do people want to live in? …It’s the natural impulse of people who are very alive to decorate their environment, make it beautiful. The ultimate question raised by graffiti is: What would a wildly decorated city look like?
-Jamie Bryan in Taking The Train, Joe Austin
My internship is through an organization called Portland Mural Defense (PMD), which consists of three muralists/organizers who have been fighting to change a sign code here in Portland that declares all murals larger than 200 square feet illegal unless they receive permission from the government arts council. In other words, even if you’re a home owner and you commission an artist to paint a wall on the outside of your house, it still would not be legal. PMD has been working with the city to change this law, which currently makes it extremely difficult to paint murals here. Furthermore, what this process means is that, to a certain degree, this governing body can choose which kinds of murals get painted, and which don’t.
This leads us back to one of the basic ideas of art: expressing one’s voice, one’s vision, and putting it into some sort of form for other people to see. In that light, graffiti writers are the artists who are enacting this at the most extreme form of expression. They are literally placing their vision out in the open, for all to view (often going to extreme measures to find the most visible spots), without any concern for the law, safety, or what other members of the community might want to see. You could call it radical self-expression. That self-expression may be considered ugly, or vandalism, but it is certainly vibrantly expressive (what it is expressing, though, is a whole different discussion, and one that depends on the artist or viewer).
Murals are similarly expressive, except maybe without the whole illegality thing. But, as the quote at the beginning of this entry suggests, public art allows individuals and communities to decorate their city according to their vision. It gives them a space and a voice in an urban environment that often socially, politically, economically, or even architecturally denies them those things. And, for me, there’s something very exciting about that self-expression. People have important opinions and visions: and they should get to express those visions and we should get to see them.
These are just some of my thoughts from the first couple days of really delving into the mural world, at least as it exists here in Portland. I hope that applying some of these ideas to the public art work that I’m getting involved with will be really interesting. I’ve already got a whole lot to say about that: I spent the last two days on a mural tour of the city with two different artists who’ve been involved with many of them, and there’s a lot I could write. Some other time in the (hopefully near) future I will.
But in the meanwhile, here are some great murals: